GREEN BAY – The ball wobbled in the cold, floating, down the field. Morgan Burnett saw it, hung up like a ripened apple. Only as the Green Bay Packers safety took off from his position on the far side of the field, it just kept … going.
Burnett lunged, but Colin Kaepernick’s toss dropped softly, if unsteadily, into the waiting hands of Vernon Davis in the Packers’ end zone as A.J. Hawk was stuck looking the other direction.
On the next 49ers drive, Packers corner Jarrett Bush crashed down on a blitz. As he tried to maneuver around Frank Gore, he saw Kaepernick’s torso rotate, ready to unload a pass. Bush got his hands up, effectively stopping Kaepernick’s motion – only the 49ers quarterback pulled the ball down and ran around the left end untouched for a key first down with about a minute to go in the game.
They were the significant plays of the last two 49ers drives which gave Jim Harbaugh’s team a 23-20 victory, sending the Packers home from the NFC playoffs for the second straight year.
In a tightly contested game that came down to a final second, 33-yard Phil Dawson field goal for the win, the outcome was determined by the singular plays the 49ers did make, and the Packers didn’t.
"We were probably one play away," Packers head coach Mike McCarthy said. "We were one play not good enough."
Most notably, there was the potential interception that was dropped by Packers rookie cornerback Micah Hyde during the eventual game-winning drive deep in San Francisco territory. It could’ve been returned for a touchdown, but it would’ve put the Packers in a position for a go-ahead score.
"I just dropped it," Hyde said.
He read Kaepernick’s eyes, broke on the ball and got his hands on it. The cold didn’t matter. He didn’t look at the end zone.
"It was just a drop," he said. "Nothing was to be thought about. I was there to make the play and tried to climb the ladder to get it and it just slipped out of my hands."
There were two passes to James Jones, who admitted he let them slip through his hands. The pair of drops included one for a touchdown and another that would’ve given the Packers first-and-goal instead of a punt.
"Those are plays that I make consistently," said Jones, who caught two of his five targets for just 20 yards. "Especially when you’re in the playoffs you need those plays and I didn’t make those plays. Those were two, key, huge plays in the game."
There was the ball Hyde stripped from 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree in the first quarter that squirted out of bounds, which allowed the 49ers to kick a field goal and go up 3-0.
"There were a couple others, obviously," Hawk said. "Especially playoff football, it’s a game of inches."
There was Aaron Rodgers with the ball 1st-and-goal from the 49ers 9-yard line, with 6 minutes, 12 seconds left in the game, unable to score a touchdown, instead settling for a game-tying 24-yard Mason Crosby field goal.
"It’s not what you want," said Packers wide receiver Jordy Nelson. "It’s something we’ve struggled with all year is finishing in the red zone and it continued today. Give them credit for stepping up and limiting us to a field goal to tie the game. We’ve got to punch that in one way or another."
Twice in the fourth quarter the Packers took leads, first with 12:06 to go on a 1-yard John Kuhn run that made it 17-13. It only took 1:35 for the 49ers to answer, with Davis hauling in the 28-yard touchdown over Hawk on Kaepernick’s tottering throw.
"I was with him, but if he caught it then it’s not good coverage," Hawk said. "I should’ve found a way to break that up or get the pick."
Rodgers directed the game-tying drive, only to see Kaepernick answer again. Bush could only watch helplessly as the 49ers quarterback scampered around him for an 11-yard gain and key first down.
"He scrambled, used his legs and made a play," Bush said. "That’s some of the things he kind of hurt us (with) in the past.
"At the end of the day, he made a play."
"He found a way to get out of the pocket, found a way to make that throw, found a way to make that run whenever he needed to," added Tramon Williams, who did intercept Kaepernick once, a turnover that led to the Packers’ first touchdown and lead of the game, a 5-yard pass from Rodgers to Nelson that made it 7-6 in the second quarter.
"That’s the sign of a true champion and he performed like one today."
A home underdog, everything on paper said the 49ers would win walking away. Yet, on a frigid afternoon in Green Bay, the Packers almost pulled it out.
Only "almost" wasn’t good enough – and it left many in the locker room wondering what might have been.
"(It was a) frustrating way to end the season," Rodgers said. "I think a lot of us felt with the way things had gone the last four or five weeks that there was something special about this year, and everything might be aligning right for us to make a run. So, I’m very disappointed. Personally, it’s frustrating not to play your best game. (It was in) tough conditions, but the defense held them to 23 points. We should win that game."
Lacing up his heavy boots in the locker room, guard Josh Sitton knotted and yanked on his laces with a tug of finality.
"Just the way we fought back to get into the playoffs and a few of these games that we’ve pulled out, some comebacks, we’re a real tight knit group and I thought we had a special team," he said. "I thought we were going to make a run."
Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.
A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.
To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.
Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining OnMilwaukee.com.
In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.
Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.